Texas Primer: The Cotton Bowl

First the Cowboys left, then SMU. But the stadium remains as a monument to Texas football.

The name itself speaks of a Texas of another era. Today we might call it the Semiconductor Bowl or the Free Enterprise Bowl, but in 1936 Texas was still a Southern state and cotton was the ball game. Something must have been in the air that year. Southern Methodist University had just claimed its first—and only—national championship, only to lose to Stanford 7-0 in the 1936 Rose Bowl. J. Curtis Sanford, a Tyler oilman, returned from that game determined that Texas would have its own New Year’s Day contest, which would be held in the six-year-old Fair Park Stadium, where Oklahoma and Texas were already playing every year. The Texas Centennial opened that summer on those same fairgrounds, and with that exposition, the state made its first tentative break away from the Old South. The Cotton Bowl Classic was born in that fertile moment when Texas was turning away from its defeated past and moving uncertainly toward its bright destiny. Sanford personally guaranteed $10,000 for the first bowl game, which saw Texas Christian University defeat Marquette, 16-6.

By 1940, when Boston College played Clemson and only 12,000 customers paid to attend, the Classic was being called Sanford’s Folly. That spring, however, the Southwest Conference and the Cotton Bowl Association agreed that the conference winner would play host to the annual game, and out of that marriage came some of the most memorable moments in college football history. My favorite: the 1979 ice bowl, when a frozen Joe Montana sat out most


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